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School Elections Show Incumbents' Power

Education: Results in Orange County indicate that voters are content with how local boards are doing their jobs, say both liberal and conservative observers.

November 06, 1998|LIZ SEYMOUR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Blame it on the roaring economy, smaller class sizes and more offerings in music and art. Or maybe it's just voter complacency.

All but two Orange County school board incumbents were reelected this week after campaigns that were quiet, to say the least.

"It's absolutely a bona-fide affirmation of how happy people are with their schools," said Elizabeth Parker, a member of the Orange County Board of Education who was not up for reelection.

The conservative Education Alliance can boast a net gain of two school board members it had supported. So can the group's big rival, the California Teachers Assn. And the winners in the South Orange County Community College District race, Don Wagner and Nancy Padberg, were endorsed by both special-interest groups.

The lack of big upsets, political shifts or campaign shenanigans in a year when education tops the public agenda may be a sign that voters are content locally, people on both sides say.

"It's kind of like Congress: Everybody hates Congress but they love their congressman," said Frank Ury, who blames the strength of incumbency on his failure to win a seat on the Saddleback Valley school board.

A former board member, Ury was denied reelection in 1996 and came in third this year behind incumbents Dore Gilbert and Nancy Kirkpatrick. Both received campaign contributions from the teachers union while Ury, an electrical engineer from Mission Viejo, was backed by the Education Alliance, a group he helped create in 1993.

The Education Alliance favors a "back to basics" approach to curriculum and opposes bilingual education. The group was formed after the defeat of the school voucher initiative, an issue championed by alliance founders.

Five of 11 alliance-backed candidates who won are incumbents. But Dorsey Brause, an alliance-endorsed incumbent on the Capistrano Unified School District board, lost his reelection bid. Cathy Brooks, the president of Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified who also received the conservative group's support, withdrew from the race because of a family illness.

Alliance-supported candidates now have a majority on the Anaheim Union High School District board.

"This year was a year that supposedly there wasn't enough candidates out there," said Ken Williams, a member of the alliance who sits on the county school board. "Two seats this year, two seats next year; it's a growing tradition."

But critics say that the group's appeal is fading and that voters favor more centrist board members to run schools.

"Their message is way out of sync," said Jean Hessberg, the executive director for the liberal-minded People for the American Way. "People know that the Education Alliance is not about education. It's about ideology."

Hessberg's organization endorsed candidates in eight school board races across the state, including Nadia Maria Davis, a newcomer to the Santa Ana board.

Davis, a lawyer, said she hopes to see an end to the political squabbles that divide the board, which oversees the county's largest school district. An opponent of Proposition 227, which largely banned bilingual instruction, Davis said she will implement English-only instruction and wants parents to learn English as well.

The state teachers union, a major force in the Legislature and a monitor of school boards up and down the state, backed 28 Orange County candidates. Among the 21 victors, 16 were incumbents. Estimates of contributions--direct or in-kind--that the union doled out to candidates were unavailable because some received support from the state union as well as the local.

"I'd like to think that people--when they go to vote--don't want extremes," said Shirley Guy, a political consultant in Orange County for the California Teachers Union. "They don't want super-liberals or super-conservatives."

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